Bedtime Stories: August 2014

  • August 18, 2014

What do literary types have queued up on their nightstands and ready to read before lights-out? We asked a few of them, and here’s what they said.

Bedtime Stories: August 2014

Jessica Anya Blau:

I’m always reading more than one book at a time. And I keep my e-reader by the bed so if (when!) I wake up in the middle of the night, I can read without turning on a light.

  • I just finished Patti Smith’s autobiography, Just Kids. I did like it, and I looove her (can any woman be more hip and cool?), but it was utterly humorless, and that drove me a little mad.
  • Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home by Nina Stibbe, on the other hand, was completely charming and funny. The book is simply the letters written home by a British nanny in the early 1980s. She worked for Mary Kay Wilmers, the editor of the London Review of Books, who has two kids with the director Stephen Frears. Playwright Alan Bennett seemed to come to dinner every night, and there were many other interesting characters folded in with the very sweet and funny boys Nina cared for.
  • I just reread James Magruder’s Let Me See It. I read the book about two years ago when I blurbed it, but people have been talking about it so much that I wanted to reread certain chapters so I could love them all over again. It’s about the lives of two gay men growing up from the 70s through the AIDS era of the 90s. It’s terribly sad at times, but more than once, I found myself cackling out loud. 
  • I’m currently reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things and really loving it. The first three chapters cover 12 years or something crazy like that. It’s dense, it moves, I’m sucked in. It’s not at all like Eat, Pray, Love, which just goes to show what a smart writer Gilbert is.
  • Sitting right next to my head each night as I read is Susan Coll’s new book, The Stager. Every person I know who’s read it has said it’s “un-put-downable.” I believe them! I did sneak (like watching a trailer for a movie) and read the first chapter and it was great.
  • The e-book I’m currently reading is Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, to whom I am related (I’m a Beecher through my maternal grandmother). I must admit, however, that I started reading it last summer. Every time there’s some crazy e-book sale online, I buy a passel of e-books and then I rip through them as if they’ll run off one day, while I know that dear old Grandma Beecher will just sit in her wooden rocking chair and wait for me forever. 

Jessica Anya Blau’s newest novel, The Wonder Bread Summer, was picked for CNN’s summer reading list, NPR’s summer reading list, Vanity Fair’s summer reads, and Oprah Book Club’s summer reading list. It received multiple offers and was optioned to Hollywood. She is also the author of the novels Drinking Closer to Home and the bestselling The Summer of Naked Swim Parties.


Jennifer Niesslein:


  • Megan Stielstra’s Once I Was Cool. Stielstra’s collection of essays combines the things I love best in writing: humor, smarts, and extraordinary insights about being human. In more specific terms, Once I Was Cool is about adulthood, with essays ranging from running into an old lover while tripping, to managing postpartum depression via a baby monitor. The first essay in it, “Stop Reading and Listen,” inspired me to put down the book, go to my computer, and message her a completely embarrassing anecdote about my unladylike behavior at a concert, which only goes to show 1) how she’s able to make such an amazing connection to the reader, and 2) that I’m a dorky fangirl and never had any cool to lose.
  • Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State. I’ve been a big fan of Gay’s nonfiction for a long while — it’s psychologically raw, fabulously honest, and thought-provoking. An Untamed State is her second novel, and although obviously different from her nonfiction, it offers the same sort of squeezes to the gut and brain. The novel opens when Mireille Duval Jameson is kidnapped for ransom while visiting her wealthy-but-didn’t-start-out-that-way parents in Haiti. I don’t want to say too much more for fear of spoiling the plot, but it’s a book that I found simultaneously emotionally tough and hard to stop reading.
  • Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train. I’m certainly not the only one who loves this novel — it’s a bestseller. Orphan Train is a braided story, part the tale of a contemporary girl who’s about to age out of the foster care system, part the journey of a girl in 1929, who’s put on the “orphan train” after she loses her immigrant Irish family in a fire. I love the scope both of the novel and of Kline’s body of work — two anthologies about motherhood that she edited very much inspired my own career. She’s literarily ambidextrous, something I can’t even tell you how much I admire.


  • Elizabeth Crane’s We Only Know So Much. I found out about this novel when I read an interview between her and Megan Stielstra — a discovery like those boxes at the old-timey video stores: “If you like this, you might like…” I’m really enjoying it, a story told from six different points of view from members of the Copeland family, each of whom seems to be losing his or her shit in some way. Crane has a literary voice like no other.
  • Elizabeth Naranjo’s The Fourth Wall. I really like Naranjo’s essays, so I’m grooving on her debut YA novel about lucid dreaming. I was the kid whose bookshelves were lined with mysteries and supernatural-themed novels (so much so that my younger sister was afraid of my room), and this is hitting just the right spot.


The gazillion periodicals covering the family coffee table, including the Sun, Columbia Journalism Review, Bitch, and Utne Reader. I spend a lot of time online, too, reading both literary stuff and, lately, trying to educate myself on the history of the world’s conflicts. And playing Scrabble.

Jennifer Niesslein is the founder and editor of Full Grown People, a web magazine of personal essays about the other awkward age: adulthood.


Marion Winik:

I am a book reviewer by trade, so it’s not unusual for me to have lots of books to read that I didn’t choose. But at the moment, the situation is out of control. As one of three judges for the Kirkus Prize for fiction, no fewer than 273 books have shown up at my door in the past few weeks. From these, Kate Christensen, Stephanie Valdez, and I will select a short list of six, then a winner to be announced in October. This person will get $50,000, which is five times the size of the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award. Similar awards will be made in Nonfiction and Young Adult categories.

I can’t discuss the deliberations of the committee or give away the titles we like and don’t like so far. But before the competition ever got underway, I had given rave reviews in Newsday to Lily King’s Euphoria and Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things — both about women scientists. Euphoria is based on an incident from the life of Margaret Mead — when her third husband, Gregory Bateson, stole her from her second husband, Reo Fortune, during the period when they were all doing field work with tribes on the Amazon. King’s book fictionalizes and renames the characters and gives the story a very different ending than it had in real life.

The Signature of All Things is a sprawling novel set in 19th-century Philadelphia that follows the life of an amateur botanist named Alma Whittaker, who discovers evolution on her own about the same time Darwin does. Whether you liked or didn’t like Eat, Pray, Love doesn’t matter — the two books are so very different. (If you never read Stern Men, Gilbert’s great comic novel about lobstermen in Maine, put that one on your list, too.)

Because of all the reading for the prize, I don’t know when I’ll get to these books, but they’re up next when my time is my own again:

  • War Memorials by Clint McCown. I just taught with Clint at the Nightsun Conference at Frostburg University in Frostburg, Maryland, and he read a chapter from this novel at his faculty reading — it touched on the role of the narrator’s wife’s pet lizard in the decline and fall of the marriage. It was so funny, I ran right to the book table and bought it. Great writer and also a true Southern gentleman.
  • The Splendid Things We Planned by Blake Bailey. I have heard great things about this memoir from my boss at Newsday, book editor Tom Beer. Bailey is known as the biographer of John Cheever, Charles Jackson, and Richard Yates, and is at work on Philip Roth, one of my all-time favorite writers. This book is about Bailey’s relationship with his brother, lost to alcohol and drugs, and is said to shed light on his own work as a biographer, as well.
  • The New Yorkers by Cathleen Schine. My best friend, Sandye, is a big fan of Schine, and I remember loving The Evolution of Jane years ago. When I told her I was thinking of trying to write a comic novel and was reading Richard Russo’s Straight Man and Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys for inspiration, she handed me a copy of this to put on the stack, as well.

So, gotta run. Reading a first novel called Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler, which came in the Kirkus tsunami. Seems good so far.

Marion Winik is the author of eight books of creative nonfiction, including the New York Times Notable Book First Comes Love, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, and Highs in the Low Fifties. Winik writes a column at, reviews books for Newsday and Kirkus, and teaches at the University of Baltimore. She was a commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered for 15 years.


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